“We need to change”: Astronomers Admit Their Outsized Contribution to the Climate Crisis

Radio Telescope view at night with milky way in the sky

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

All those long flights to remote observatories ensure Astronomers have an outsized carbon footprint. And Astronomers keen to reduce their carbon footprints should abandon software languages like Python in favour of compiled languages like C++.

‘We’re part of the problem.’ Astronomers confront their role in—and vulnerability to—climate change

By Daniel Clery
Oct. 7, 2020 , 11:30 AM

Astronomers have a climate problem. Not only is global warming increasing the frequency of wildfires and the strength of hurricanes that physically threaten observatories, but a changing climate could mar their views by bringing higher temperatures, humidity, and turbulent air closer to their mountaintop perches. Astronomers are also adding to the climate problem themselves, with long flights to remote facilities and meetings and heavy use of energy-hungry supercomputers for cosmic simulations. “We’re part of the problem, not of the solution,” says Leo Burtscher of Leiden University.

Those concerns were cast in sharp relief by six papers published last month in Nature Astronomy. One, on the carbon costs of meetings, emerged directly from the 2019 European Astronomical Society (EAS) meeting in France, which took place during a record-breaking heatwave when temperatures exceeded 45°C. “We were sitting with no air conditioning, sweating through all these interesting talks,” Burtscher says. Discussions turned to climate change and the carbon emitted getting everyone to the meeting, and they inspired Burtscher and his colleagues to size up the meeting’s travel emissions. They added up to nearly 1900 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent or about 1.5 tons per delegate—roughly the same as emitted by an average resident of India in a whole year.

Astronomers are now taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint. In another of the six studies, Simon Portegies Zwart of Leiden University calls for changes in computing strategy. Astronomers should avoid traditional computers and instead use ones that rely on more efficient graphical processor units, Zwart says, although they are harder to program. Astronomers should also abandon popular programming languages such as Python in favor of efficient compiled languages. Languages such as Fortran and C++, Zwart calculates, are more than 100 times more carbon efficient than Python because they require fewer operations. Another option, says MPIA’s Knud Jahnke, is to set up supercomputers in Iceland, with its carbon-free geothermal power and cold climate, which reduces cooling needs, or in other countries with plentiful renewable energy.

This month, Lick workers cleared brush and trees around the site to lessen the risk of future fires. Astronomers need to take action, too, Burtscher says. It’s a moral decision—and a practical one, he says. “We need to change in order to continue our professions.

Read more: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/10/we-re-part-problem-astronomers-confront-their-role-and-vulnerability-climate-change

As a software developer who has worked with many people with academic qualifications in Astronomy, Physics and Mathematics, I feel qualified to comment on the advice to Astronomers to switch to C++. Just don’t.

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October 10, 2020 at 08:49AM

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